rye ergot, secale cornutum
The blue to dark-purple, straight or slightly bent,
sausage-shaped bodies called ergot occur mainly in the ears
of rye and are 1 ½ inches long and 3-4mm wide.
They appear between the
glumes in place of normal grains and, like them, have white
These ergot ‘grains’ are
.1-1.5 inches long, more or less cylindrical, often
Ergot is not a product of
the cereal plant but the permanent form (sclerotium) of a
Ergot is found mostly in
rye but it sometimes occurs on wheat and barley ears as well
as on some wild grasses
Ergot of rye is found
wherever rye is cultivated and especially in regions where
seed control is lax.
It is more frequent in wet
years than in dry years and is found especially on the edges
of rye fields.
Collection is at the time
of harvest of the mature ears and from the threshed grain.
Dried at 86-113F.
Cultivation is possible by
artificial injection, of the closed ear of rye with a
suspension in water of ergot spores.
It is desirable to carry
out such cultivation in areas where no other rye is being
The sclerotia that have
grown on the rye then dropped off are collected during dry
weather and dried in a little warmth. They have a musty
smell and an insipid offensive taste.
Do this in early summer to
early autumn or fall
Ergot was formerly assumed to be a misshapen grain and was
In 1782 Johann Taube
recognized its toxicity as the cause of “itching sickness”
or St. Anthony’s Fire.
The biology of the ergot
fungus was revealed by Tulasne in 1852.
The name Ergot is derived
from the old French word
argot (a cock’s spur), a
reference to the appearance of the fungus.
During the Middle Ages,
tens of thousands of people in Europe
were afflicted with ergotism, a malady characterized by
gangrenous extremities, convulsions, madness and death. They
ate rye bread infested with ergot fungus containing several
peptide alkaloids of the ergotamine group (including
ergotamine, ergosine and ergocristine) that affect blood
vessels. Since they are potent vasoconstrictors, these
alkaloids can cause gangrene if ingested in sufficient
dosages. Known as "St. Anthony's Fire," ergotism was a
dreaded disease in Europe.
Between 990 and 1129, more than 50,000 people died of this
disease in France. The disease became so
devastating that in 1093 in southern France the people formed an order to
take care of the afflicted, and they chose St. Anthony as
their patron saint. One of the symptoms of the disease was
an intense burning sensation, hence the name St. Anthony's
Fire. It wasn't until 1597 (500 years after the first
epidemic of ergotism) that physicians finally associated
this horrendous disease with the ergot on rye. Another form
of ergot poisoning involves severe hallucinations and
madness, caused by pschoactive alkaloids in the sclerotia.
Contains more than a dozen
potent alkaloids, most of them derivatives of lysergic acid,
among them ergometrine, ergocitrine, ergocornine, ergotamine
Ergometrine is the most
important of these substances.
It is extracted and used
in pharmaceutical preparations principally to assist women
in childbirth and in the treatment of migraine.
Ergotamine is also used to
treat migraine. Other ingredients are gipments and
histamine. Due to the variable alkaloid content, between
0.025 and 0.2 per cent, drug extracts are not longer used.
Nowadays only industrially isolated alkaloids are used in
prepared medicines used in obstetrics, for migraines and
also in various compound medicines.
Uses: It has been used to
strengthen contractions in childbirth since the 16th
It is rarely used in its
crude state today, but is split into component alkaloids,
such as ergometrine (a uterine stimulant) and ergotamine (a
vasoconstrictor). Ergot is an irreplaceable raw material for
many important medicines.
Nowadays it is obtained by
artificial cultivation on rye and also by cultivation of the
mycelia in fermentation vats.
A number of important
medical discoveries have come from the study of ergot fungus
and ergotism. In 1935 the alkaloid ergonovine was isolated
from ergot. Since it causes strong muscular contractions, it
has been used to induce labor and to control hemmorrhaging.
The alkaloid ergotamine has been used extensively to relieve
migraine headaches through the constriction of blood
vessels. Thousands of pounds of ergot sclerotia are
harvested each year from midwestern rye farms, and are used
for various prescription drugs. In 1943 chemist Albert
Hofmann was studying ergot fungus, whose nuclei contain
lysergic acid. When he added diethylamide he produced
lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD. While
working on this new compound, Hoffman discovered that its
strong hallucinogenic effects were similar to that of
natural lysergic acid alkaloids in the seeds of "ololiuqui,"
morning glories used by the Aztecs in their religious
Ergot poisoning can manifest itself as a “burning epidemic”
which results in a restricted circulation in the limbs with
severe burning pains (holy fire).
The limbs subsequently
turn black and drop off from lack of blood. Alternatively,
poisoning can affect the nervous system, of which the
symptoms are “cramp epidemic” (Ergotismus convulsivus)
accompanied by itching (itching sickness), thirst and
ravenous hunger, cramp in the flexor muscles and finally
Dictionary of Healing Plants,
Dr. Hans-Peter Dorfler and Prof. Gerhard Roselt, Blanford
Press, 1989; ISBN: 0-7137-1852-8
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of
Herbs, Edited by Sarah
Bunney, Chancellor Press, 1992; ISBN: 1-85152-135-6
Hans Fluck, W. Foulsham & Co., 1988; ISBN: 0-572-00996-8
is brought to you by The Herb Growing & Marketing Network,
PO Box 245, Silver Spring, PA 17575-0245;
717-393-9261; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
http://www.herbalpedia.com Editor: Maureen Rogers.
All rights reserved.
Material herein is derived
from journals, textbooks, etc. THGMN cannot be held
responsible for the validity of the information contained in
any reference noted herein, for the misuse of information or
any adverse effects by use of any stated material presented.